By Desmond Osaretin Oriakhogba
My Engagement with the Hillcrest Aids Centre Trust in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
As part of my on-going project as a Queen Elizabeth Scholar (QEScholar) with Open AIR, I have spent the past three months on a research placement with the Hillcrest Aids Centre Trust (HACT). This placement has significantly reshaped the focus of my research, investigating the economically empowering and impactful work being undertaken by the HACT for poor, rural Zulu women artisans.
About HACT & The Woza Moya Project
The Hillcrest Aids Centre Trust (HACT) is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) situated in the heart of Hillcrest, a suburb located west of Durban in the eThekwini Municipality of the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa. Though founded in 1990 to help cope with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it has expanded to also include various community outreach and economic empowerment programmes to cater to the needs of rural communities. Two of these programs currently include the Woza Moya (Zulu phrase for “Come Wind of Change”) project and the Gogo (Zulu word for “Grandmother”) Support Group programme.
The Woza Moya project, is the largest economic empowerment programme HACT provides, accommodates over 350 traditional artisans involved in traditional crafts like wood carving, ceramics, sewing, basket weaving, among others, from the rural Zulu communities. Nonetheless, the project primarily attracts Zulu women bead-workers who make up more than 80% of the traditional crafters under the Woza Moya project.
The project aims to transform the rural women bead-workers to small business owners with zero start-up capital. To this end, the project is administered as a social enterprise with the economic and social wellbeing of the women as the core objective. The project does not, generate income for the HACT. It is established solely to solve the challenge of poverty and disempowerment being faced by the rural women bead-workers by adopting innovative strategies.
In fact, some of the women bead-workers I interacted with attested to the unprecedented economic and social progress they achieved under the project, such as being able to build their own houses and catering for the tertiary education of their children, among others, from their earnings from beadwork under the project.
Interestingly, in empowering the women bead-workers, the Woza Moya project adopts open and inclusive innovative approaches which preserve the traditional Zulu beadwork culture and builds on it to create contemporary jewellery and other fashion and artistic pieces. The bead-workers take part in the planning, design, and production of the bead-works under the Woza Moya project. In order to achieve this, according to Lungile Manyathi (Marketing and Fund-Raising Officer for Woza Moya), the project provides market research, market access (foreign and local), modern beadwork and business training, quality control and assurance, beading equipment, and pricing guidance to the bead-workers who are largely uneducated and lacking competences on the foregoing issues.
More importantly, the Woza Moya project offers a community where the rural women bead-workers with shared social, cultural and economic experiences can come together, make their beadworks, earn a decent and healthy leaving, be free to express themselves through their craft and act as a pillar of support for each other. Their success has even attracted some Zulu men, who were trained by their mothers in the craft, to realise the enormous potential of the traditionally women’s craft as a means to economic empowerment for all genders.
Understanding the Gendered Approach of HACT’s programmes
In the course of my research placement, I interacted with some members of HACT’s staff, the majority of whom are women. From these interactions, I gained very important insights into the motivations for HACT’s work and the centrality of their gendered approach.
HACT views the HIV/AIDS pandemic as a social malaise rather than a mere health problem. In interviews, Paula Thomson, the executive manager facilitating the HACT’s Woza Moya project, mentioned that the HACT’s empowerment programmes, were conceived out of the need to empower HACT’s beneficiaries, majority of whom are women, in a sustainable manner. This was further confirmed and explained by HACT’s CEO, Candace Davidson, who stated that “the majority of [HACT’s] beneficiaries are women: almost two-third, if not more. And that is because they have really bore the brunt of being left to raise vulnerable grandchildren or great-grandchildren”. According to her, HACT’s approach to the HIV/AIDS pandemic has been to view the disease not in isolation, as a health issue alone, but more broadly as a social problem encompassing “public health issues which ripple across social spheres, family structure, [and] economics […]. It is cross-sectoral in that it impacts so much of society”.
Impact on my QES Research
The main aim of my research placement at HACT was to build on the interdisciplinary training I gained in the course of my project and to apply my practical skills towards the growth of the NGO. To this end, my primary activity in HACT involved engagements with staff of the NGO and the rural Zulu women bead-workers participating in the Woza Moya project. The knowledge I have gained has helped to reshape the focus of my research.
Before interacting with the staff of the HACT and the rural Zulu women bead-workers under the Woza Moya project, my research was focused on finding out how to calibrate knowledge governance legal frameworks, including intellectual property laws in South Africa, to empower these rural women beadworkers by enabling them to share in and enjoy the social and economic benefits of their works. This was a more top-down approach to policy research. Without neglecting this goal, however, my engagement with the HACT revealed the need to also adopt a bottom-up approach to the question of economic empowerment of rural craftwomen. This involves an understanding of the self-sustaining strategies that the Woza Moya project has adopted and how these strategies can be aligned with the national development goals of South Africa, hopefully being replicated in other parts of the country.